Networking Pros Get Some Respect

Foote: Today's market for experienced networking professionals is a lively one, as companies embracing Web-enabled business models become keenly aware that networks going down can mean lost business.

Anything that goes up in a down year raises attention, so we were excited when our Q2 2002 compensation survey research revealed that average salaries for network operations professionals were up 6.4 percent over the previous 12 months, compared with a 5.5 percent decline in IT salaries overall.

But then we discovered some contradictions: Average median premium pay for networking-related certifications had fallen more than 8 percent for the same period, much worse than the 2.7 percent decline in overall cert pay. (For more on cert pay trends see "Premium Bonus Pay for Certs.") Moreover, average networking skills pay had plunged 20.3 percent for the year against a 14.4 percent drop in overall skills pay. Something wasnt quite right here.

Fact is, companies are spending billions on e-business infrastructure and development despite the dreary economy and will continue to do so for years. Gartner analysts, for example, predict $288 billion in U.S. online revenues by 2006, up from $72 billion in 2001.

So its not surprising that todays market for experienced networking professionals is a lively one, as companies embracing Web-enabled business models become more keenly aware that networks going down can mean lost business and (potentially) lost customers. Rather than placing their precious networks in the hands of consultants and outsourcing firms, theyre now more apt to develop and maintain their own enterprise infrastructure by seeking out top-notch network pros and paying them attractive wages.

Restricted by hiring freezes? No problem. Networking positions and security jobs focused on protecting e-business networks are where the exceptions are often made.

So wheres the money for higher networking salaries coming from? While base salaries for network ops workers have grown in our latest quarterly survey, total compensation (base plus cash bonus) remained unchanged. A little sleuthing revealed that, in order to boost base salaries, many employers have simply begun folding network certifications and skills premium bonus pay into base salaries. Some have strengthened the requirements for networking jobs to justify doing so, including making some skills and certifications from Cisco, Novell, Microsoft and CompTIA mandatory instead of "highly desirable."

Using certifications as predictors of job performance is risky, but its clear that increasing base salaries results in more competitive firepower in hiring and retaining the best workers. And the best are still mobile and actively recruited despite corporate contractions.

Its a rare thing to monkey around with bonuses in this fashion. Compensation managers delight in holding down base salaries and keeping bonus pay "at risk" so that it can be adjusted to overall company performance and other factors if necessary. This phenomenon was last seen in the Lotus Notes hiring frenzy of the early-to-mid-1990s, when it appeared that this groupware technology would figure prominently in core business processes. Employers beefed up base salaries in an effort to attract Notes experts. But the cost economies of rapidly growing Internet solutions eventually robbed Lotus of momentum and left many companies stuck with high-priced Notes workers.

Thats unlikely to happen this time with networking professionals, who will play critical roles over the next several years in administering and expanding LANs and WANs, and especially in the integration of voice and data and wireless technologies. Theyll be troubleshooting technical problems of startling complexity and protecting enterprises information resources from cyber-threats of almost unimaginable severity. Expect networking certification requirements to get tougher and higher qualifications set for taking the exams.

David Foote is president and chief research officer at Foote Partners LLC, a management consultancy and IT workforce research firm located in New Canaan, Conn. Contact him at